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Afghans stuck on Lesbos demand equal treatment as refugees

According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), less than 64 percent of Afghans are granted asylum, compared to 75 percent for Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis.

world Updated: Oct 11, 2015 11:10 IST
Afghan refugees arrive on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast.(Reuters)

In cloistered meetings miles away from the combat zone, European governments have decided that Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war should be given precedence over other exiles seeking refugee protection.

But on the dock of Mytilene, the port capital of Greece’s Lesbos island, 22-year-old Sajjad wants to tell them they are wrong, and demands equal treatment.

“Of course I am a refugee. Your governments should go to Afghanistan if they think people can live there,” he says.

Sajjad, who does not want to give his surname, left home in mid-September.

“We heard that Europe had opened its borders,” he said.

When he later learned that Afghans are not included in the EU scheme to share out 160,000 asylum seekers, he didn’t know whether to laugh or get angry.

According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), less than 64 percent of Afghans are granted asylum, compared to 75 percent for Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis.

A migrant woman is helped by volunteers after arriving by an overcrowded dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos. (REUTERS)

The UN has called for an international effort to repatriate millions of Afghans who have fled the country, arguing that their return could help to stabilise it.

Sajjad plans to head for Sweden.

“But I’ll see which country is prepared to take me in,” he adds in broken English.

‘We’ll camp outside door’

“If they shut the door on us, we will camp outside the door,” says Sajjad’s nephew Bismillah.

“We are numerous and this gives us strength,” he adds.

Bismillah is no stranger to exile. He may be young but he has already experienced the life of a child refugee in Pakistan, where his family first fled after leaving Afghanistan.

A young man wraps himself in a blanket on a beach shortly after he arrived with other migrants by boat on Lesbos. (AFP)

After Syrians, Afghans are the chief nationality among the over 400,000 people who have landed on Greek shores from neighbouring Turkey this year -- a tenfold increase from 2014.

Like other non-Syrians, they are fingerprinted and given a document ordering them to leave Greece in a month.

On Lesbos, this document earns them the right to buy a ticket off the island.

They end up in Athens, frequently sleeping on the street until they can book passage to the border with Macedonia, hoping to pass themselves off as Syrian.

Many including Bismillah lie about their age in an effort to win protection as unaccompanied minors.

But the ploy does not always work.

“Who are you trying to convince that you’re 17 years old?” a Greek registration officer is heard shouting at a young Afghan in the migrant camp of Moria, where thousands of non-Syrian migrants are kept behind a double fence and barbed wire.


During the summer, when larger numbers of Syrians and Afghans fought for space on Greek islands, there was frequent tension between the two groups.

“Ideally you want to see a procedure to screen out those who are not refugees,” UNHCR regional spokesman Ron Redmond told AFP.

An Afghan refugee prepares his prosthetic leg to start walking immediately after arriving on a dinghy to Lesbos from the Turkish coast. (AP)

“And in a crisis like this, those screened out would ideally be assisted in going back to their home countries. You need to look at the specific situation of each family, each individual,” he said.

To become eligible for the EU relocation scheme, Greece must first satisfy its fellow member states that it can credibly sort out the refugees from the economic migrants.

EU border agency Frontex has announced plans to send 600 officers to help staff registration centres on the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Leros, Kos and Chios.

The EU’s aim is to have the centres ready by the end of November.

But what is going to happen to thousands of non-Syrian migrants who will inevitably be sent back to Greece by other EU states is less clear.

“We are not going to turn our country into a concentration camp for refugees,” Yiannis Mouzalas, junior interior minister for migration, said last month.

Read: Migrant crisis: No place left to die on Greece’s Lesbos island

First Published: Oct 11, 2015 11:10 IST